February 21, 2022
BEIJING – China celebrated the conclusion of what will be remembered as a successful and incident-free Olympic Games, even as the world continues to battle the highly contagious Omicron outbreak.
The host country has managed to keep the Covid-19 variant at bay within the competition bubble, stayed above the political fray and earned its largest medal haul in any Winter Olympics.
It bagged 15 medals, including nine gold, coming in third on the tally just above the United States with eight gold. Winter sports powerhouse Norway took first spot with 37 medals, including 16 gold, while Germany was second with 12 gold among 27 medals in total.
China’s top leaders – President Xi Jinping and his six colleagues in the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China – were at the closing ceremony of the Games on Sunday night (Feb 20) held at the iconic National Stadium in Beijing, better known as the Bird’s Nest.
Athletes in the stands cheered as the Olympic flag was handed to Italy, the next host of the Winter Olympics in 2026 which will be held in the cities of Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo.
The Beijing Olympics began on Feb 4 under a cloud of controversy after the United States, Canada, Australia, Britain and a few other nations declared diplomatic boycotts over what they said were China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang.
Politics also hogged the spotlight briefly when Russian President Vladimir Putin met President Xi hours ahead of the opening ceremony and issued a joint statement in which China voiced its objection to Nato expansion in support of Russia.
But the 17 days went by without much political incident, despite fears by the Chinese organisers that athletes could stage human rights protests.
Instead, the biggest scandal of the Games involved 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva who, a day after winning gold in a team event, was suspended when she was discovered to have taken a banned drug in December.
She was later allowed to compete in an individual event, but fell multiple times during her routine.
The success of the Beijing Olympics can be judged based on three things: Covid-19 control, medal performance and avoiding a big scandal, said Beijing-based Mark Dreyer, author of Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View On China’s Quest To Be The Best.
Its stringent closed-loop management had been effective in keeping the virus in check, with about 500 participants, including athletes, testing positive, mostly ahead of the start of the Games.
This Winter Olympics were also China’s best showing to date, while Valieva’s doping controversy “wasn’t a Chinese scandal, per se”, said Mr Dreyer.
“So it’s at least 2½ out of three on my score card,” he said.
“But do I think the global narrative on China has changed because of the Olympics? Probably not. China’s still China.”
The Beijing Games will also be remembered for being a TV affair rather than a spectator event, as organisers decided against selling tickets and later also gave out fewer passes than promised to invited guests.
Apart from long queues to buy panda mascot Bing Dwen Dwen merchandise on Beijing’s main shopping street, Olympic fever was noticeably absent in the capital city as the thousands of athletes, foreign journalists and officials were kept away from the general public.
Even so, watching athletes glide effortlessly on ice or fly down snow-covered slopes has piqued the interest of many ordinary Chinese, who could soon heed the call of their government to engage more in winter sports.
Acupuncturist Zhu Na wants to sign her 17-year-old daughter up for skiing lessons, after watching freestyle skier Eileen Gu win two gold and one silver medal for China.
“It’s not about winning competitions, it’s about sharpening her will, making her more courageous and giving her a healthier body,” said the 43-year-old.